As a reviewer, there are of course movies that you’ve seen before that you have to revisit in order to provide a proper review. Many reviewers would probably look forward to that, but when you dive into extreme cinema there are less fond memories and sense of nostalgia than I expect would be the case elsewhere. Often you actively dread coming back. Admittedly, some lose their impact a second time around – A Serbian Film felt like a very notable example, coming off a little silly once that initial shock value has worn off. Some are not quite as bad as you recall, but still have an effect on the rewatch. A handful literally lose nothing in the intervening time – and Irreversible has lost nothing of its crunch fifteen years on from its initial release.
It’s a notable movie personally for a number of reasons – it was my first taste of the movement that was becoming known as the New French Extremity, a basically random hire from Blockbuster long back in the day. It stars a couple of my favourite actors in Vincent Cassel – who for me is never less than brilliant – and Monica Bellucci. It’s also the only film I can think of to be told entirely in reverse – we enter at the end of the story, the 13th scene of 13, and the story rewinds through one scene after another back to what is effectively the start of the movie. It’s a very unusual effect but it is brilliantly deployed here, as we open with the brutality would typically have marked the latter part of the story before going back to explore the characters and the sour revelation that we see in the film’s final moments.
Beyond all those points, it is both brilliant and absolutely gut-wrenching. Having concluded my rewatch, I really had to pick up my sunken spirits to get on with the rest of my day.
We open with Marcus and Pierre being arrested, followed (preceded) by the two of them frantically searching through a gay club looking for a man known as ‘Le Tenia’. We don’t know what that is at this stage, but the pursuit ends in brutal violence as Marcus suffers an attempted rape before Pierre leaps to his defence by crushing his would-be attacker’s skull with a fire extinguisher. The music, sound and visuals all make this a hugely striking opening that you simply couldn’t ignore even if you tried to.
And then we find out their motivation, and it’s impossible to talk about Irreversible without talking about that scene. We see Alex – played by Monica Bellucci – coming down a pedestrian underpass where a seedy character is beating up a prostitute. This is Le Tenia – who soon turns his depraved attention to Alex. This rape scene remains one of the most heart-breaking in cinema history – simply because the camera doesn’t move. You can sit there as long as you like, thinking, hoping, begging the thing to shift – but it doesn’t. And we catch every word of Le Tania’s verbal assault as well as the brutality of his sexual assault and the violent attack that follows. It’s one of those scenes that’s so intense that it’s hard to picture how it was shot or performed.
From there – thankfully – things do settle down a bit as we track back through their evening and finally get some insight into the characters, which ultimately only serves to make the violence and abuse that comes at the start of the movie even more shocking as the context is added. It’s a device that could have felt gimmicky but in this instance works superbly. Even the DVD box I have is basically backwards to what you would normally expect.
Irreversible sits in that rare position of being both extreme but also, in some sense, mainstream – generally critically acclaimed, nominated for Best Film at Cannes, starring significant names in the field – in a way that few others films can. Antichrist I suppose comes close, but for me Irreversible has left even more of an impression in cinema. With powerful performances, genuinely shocking scenes, a surprising narrative structure that gradually unravels the mystery of the early scenes and a fascinating and transfixing visual style, there’s almost nothing not to like from the extreme cinema perspective. However, it remains a brutally hard watch and genuinely one for the strong of stomach and resolve. RATING: 10/10. So much of this movie, even fifteen years on, has truly stick with me and it was every bit as punchy on a second watch. Brace yourself for an assault on the sense for the first forty-five minutes before being wrong-footed in the second half. Artistically brilliant and emotionally affecting, I’m delighted to give this a 10/10.